Have you ever considered how much information Google harvests about you?
Google creates ‘shadow profiles’ of every user by tracking, recording and analysing:
- Every email you send or receive via Gmail
- Every search you perform on Google search
- Every video you watch on YouTube
- Everywhere you go, the route you took and how long you stay – even if you never open the Maps app
- Your physical location – even if you turn off location services – by using information gathered from Wi-Fi and other wireless signals
Google has admitted to scanning your Gmail messages to compile a list of your purchases and who-knows-what-else. Just think of all the confidential financial, medical and other personal data which you have ever exchanged via email – it’s all being scanned by Google’s AI to build up a shadow profile of you.
Google’s Director of Security even admitted that Google allows third party developers to access your Gmail messages if you’ve granted them permission which presumably includes almost every one of the 1.5 billion Gmail users, since most people don’t change their privacy settings.
“Gmail becomes a window into your entire online life because of how wide and deep their surveillance architecture goes”, says Rowenna Fielding, founder of privacy consultancy Miss IG Geek.
Some people argue in favour of surveillance, after all “if you’ve got nothing to hide, why should you be worried?” And anyway, Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil”, right? Wrong. It used to be, but sometime in 2018 Google dropped “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct, which seems to have been subsumed by Alphabet’s slightly dubious intention to “do the right thing”, which is worryingly open to interpretation. Do the right thing for who exactly? The user? The authorities? Or just for Alphabet inc?
What can you do to minimise the exploitation of your data?
The first thing to do, if you have a Google account, is to manage your profile and set your data collection and storage preferences – but doing so won’t prevent Google exploiting the data they retain about you.
The most important step you can take is to get off Gmail. By sending email through Google’s servers you are knowingly allowing every message you send or receive to be scanned for keywords which will be used to build up a “shadow profile” of you. What happens to your data then is anyone’s guess but, at some point, it will be sold to the highest bidder. Even if you don’t consider Google to be inherently evil – it is a very commercially minded enterprise and it’s hard to believe every one of Google’s customers is entirely ethically minded.
What are the alternatives to Gmail?
Thankfully there are several other options to Gmail, which work just as well – and the cost is far from prohibitive for most people. For just £4/month you can switch to a completely surveillance free email provider, which is also powered by renewable energy.
Open Web Systems offers surveillance-free email which comes with a collection of collaborative tools to help wean you off Google including, file storage, contacts, calendar, notes, deck and tasks for project management. The collaborative tools are powered by Nextcloud, the leading open source email alternative to the ‘free’ services.
Open Web Systems will never sell your data to anyone else. Their service secures your data with powerful file access control, multi-layer encryption, machine-learning based authentication protection and advanced ransomware recovery. As an open source project Nextcloud benefits from constant improvements from a thriving community development model, free from lockins, paywalls, advertising and covert surveillance.
Open Web Systems is also governed by its members as a cooperative, giving every member a say in how their data is managed – and a democratic right to vote on issues by which they are affected.
The hidden cost of Gmail
Everyone knows that computers cost money, servers cost money, cables and routers cost money and mail servers require electricity to function – so why do we expect email to be free? There’s always a cost to send an email, so somebody has to pay – and although your Gmail account doesn’t have a monthly fee you are still paying by allowing Google to store, scan, and monetize your data.
Ultimately the choice is yours, but when the surveillance-free alternatives deliver the same level of usability and functionality as the data-exploiting alternatives, why wouldn’t you pay for privacy?